Christi and I regularly receive calls from spouses searching for answers to the disconnect in their marriage. When a person first begins telling us their story, we usually hear an explanation of what the other person is or isn’t doing in the relationship.
We understand this. Our marital problems—in my mind—are always Christi's fault. So I get defensive. And then somehow, when it's all said and done, I realized, I was to blame too.
That's why I pulled together the five action steps I immediately give couples looking for some help after listening to their story. Now remember, these five steps are always given to the one spouse who desires change, but doesn’t know what to do because the other person isn’t willing.
If this you, I’m sorry you’re in such a predicament. But let me encourage you—you can change your spouse!
1. It begins by understanding one principle—the only person you can change is you.
You cannot directly change or fix your spouse. But you can change how you interact with your spouse, which in turn, will indirectly require him to make a decision about how he responds to you. That said, when it’s the wife coming for help, I always start by sharing with her this verse:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. 1 Peter 3:1-4.
In other words, don’t preach to him. It will only push him further away. Don’t make him feel any more like a failure than he probably already does. Shame is not a motivator for positive change.
Husbands, this goes both ways.
2. Begin praying each day for your spouse, specifically that God would show you how He sees your spouse. Don’t allow your situation or your spouse’s action (or inaction) make you grow bitter and resentful.
The most effective way of regaining empathy and genuine concern for your spouse is praying that God shows you a glimpse of who your spouse is in His eyes—the hurt, the loneliness, and the pain she must feel.
Pray this prayer multiple times daily, especially when you’re frustrated.
3. Give up blame. The single biggest obstacle to couples connecting is blame. This is a hard one, especially if your spouse wrongly blames you. But resist the temptation to become defensive and cast blame in return.[i] Otherwise, the defensive walls just grow stronger and higher, and your spouse won’t change.
4. Seek to understand the motivation behind your spouse’s heart and actions. Rarely, unless your spouse is abusive, will she say something to intentionally hurt you.[ii]
Instead, hurtful words and actions are usually emotionally charged, yet bad attempts at getting our spouse to connect with us (because we’re still protecting the walls around our own hearts).
But these words just push her further away—and she doesn’t change.
I wrote a blog called How 15 Minutes is Changing My Marriage to describe how to connect at this level each day. Practice this—even if it’s just you for a while.
5. Finally, take the Golden Rule and replace the word "treat" with the word "understand."
That is: "Understand others the way you want to be understood."
In order for your spouse to begin opening up with you about her own hurts and fears, she needs to feel safe and not like she’s blowing it as a wife and mom--or for him, as a husband and dad. The more your spouse feels understood by you, the more she'll begin to open up over time.
All five of these actions foster one thing: emotional safety. And it’s emotional safety that predicts marital satisfaction.
The safer you become for your spouse, the more likely your spouse will change.[ii]
[i] To go deeper than these five steps, I would highly recommend David Burns’ book Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work. It’s his form of cognitive interpersonal therapy I use in working with couples. Some of these principles are explained in more depth in this book.
[ii] This blog is not meant to provide specific counseling advice but to be used generally across marital situations. If you're in an abusive situation, seek professional help in your local community immediately. Click here for website disclaimer.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. serves as the Marriage and Family Strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources and is the President and Cofounder of The Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents, spouses and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of the newly released Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well (Waterbrook Multnomah) and along with his wife, Christi, is the producer and co-author of the video curriculum The Screen-Balanced Family: Six Secrets to a More Connected Family in the 21st Century. Josh and his Canadian wife Christi reside in Nashville, TN with their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy.
For more encouragement and ideas on marriage and parenting in the 21st century, you can join Josh and a growing tribe of awesome families at www.joshuastraub.comand follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.